I think it's safe to say that many of today's novels aren't very original.
There's as many vampire novels as there are sands on the seashore, and even more prairie/Amish romances. (Insert a shudder here.) End times novels, well, there's lots of those too.
A well-known specific example of today's not-so-cutting-edge literature would be the popular Inheritance Trilogy (the first book being "Eragon") which manages to rip off of Star Wars in plot and Lord of the Rings in everything else. (Inheritance fans, take no offense. There are admirable things about those books, and downfalls as well, as there are with all books.)
There are original elements in all of these stories, but the basic premise, when you boil it down and take away the externals, often comes out the same. An ordinary person discovers he or she has special powers is one obvious example, taken by Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, and a whole lot of other books.
That doesn't mean these premises are bad. In fact, done right, they could very well be good. However, and note this, it's a LOT harder to write an original story with a used premise than it is to write an original story with an original premise. Why? Because we actually copy the books we've read before, whether we mean to or not. If I wrote a prairie romance novel (horror!), and I had read a lot of prairie romances, then what will happen? My own novel will turn out a lot like those other prairie romances.
Once stories are in our heads, they tend to influence how we write. This is shown (positively) by the famous writer's creed, "Read good books to write good books." So if we read a book in a certain genre, and we write a book in that same genre, then the chances are, our book will look a lot like that book. We subconsciously try to emulate the books we admire.
So how do we get out of this? It's something that's been plaguing me lately, because I realized that I've been trying to copy other novels without even knowing it. In fact, I came to a rather painful conclusion a few days ago while cross-examining my own writing: The Prophecies, which is one of my works-in-progress, is painfully unoriginal in premise. To put it bluntly, it's yet another book in which
1) there is a renamed version of Satan that's trying to take over this country. It's something that's been worn out in Christian literature. (see: Batson's The Door Within, Hopper's White Lion Chronicles, Graham's Binding of the Blade, etc.)
2) God (likewise renamed) raises up a champion-like character to warn this country (somewhat less widespread, but still common)
3) Oh, and there's a renamed Bible too—and some silly kings who don't know how to listen.
Worse still, the general premise of The Book of Shaldu, the first book, is almost frighteningly similar to the premise of Rise of the Wyrm Lord. There are differences, but it's still too close for comfort. (For example: there is the Wyrm Lord, a dragon-like thing, and the Daske, also a giant serpentine/dragon character. Both Satan figures in both books want to free that character from its imprisionment and thus dominate everything. The difference is, the race to find the evil serpentine character is not the goal of the story in ROTWL, whereas it takes center stage in The Book of Shaldu about a third of the way in.)
Now I'm faced with a decision to do one of three things: either stop the series altogether and forget about it, finish the series and rewrite it heavily, or take the best characters, scenes, and subplots of the book and deposit them in another book sometime in the future. I've never done the latter, but some of the dialogue and characters of the series are too wonderful to give up.
However, I've kind of gone off track from the original question: how do we truly be original when we write?
Here some stuff I've figured out, but feel free to voice your opinion, too.
1) Don't try to copy!
So you're thinking, "No, duh." Stick with me. It's less obvious than it sounds.
I have a really bad habit. It got me into writing, but it's getting me into trouble: I read a book and say, "I want to write this kind of book." So then I figure out how I can put a new twist on something that was in the book and stick it in my own writing.
Bad idea. Very bad idea.
So say I want people to talk with their minds (another worn-out concept), so I put a bit of a twist on it, rename it, and poof! It looks nice on the outside, but it's just another copied idea once you get into it.
Not only does this promote unoriginal thinking, it just doesn't feel right to the reader. I love reading original books because they feel fresh and new. A good premise sends shivers down my spine. It's like the promise of a banquet, and you're counting down the minutes. A new way of telling a story makes every page a delight.
Originality is appealing to the reader. A motley collection of borrowed ideas is not.
2) Write what you know.
Writers' creeds strike again. How many times have you heard that one?
Nevertheless, it's true. If we're not trying to go off of someone else's ideas, where do we start?
Well, there are occurrences where we are zapped with inspiration from above. But most of the time, writing is gritty down-to-earth work, and not terribly inspired.
So we write what we know. You are a unique person, with a set of experiences that no one else has. Take what you know, what seems ordinary to you, and integrate it into your story.
Sometimes "knowing" something requires world-building. How can you write in a world you know nothing about? It's like trying to write a novel on Mexico without even researching Mexico, much less visiting it.
Mark Twain is famous for writing things people knew, such as childhood in the West, and writing it so well that people who had never set eyes on Missouri could see that experience was talking, not imagination. They could see everything that was happening.
In the same way, we have our own experiences: so can we not use them to write something no one else could write?
So what do you think? What are some ways we can best unoriginality and write stories that will crackle with fresh and new tales? I'd love to hear what you think.